Government launches inquiry into link between sport and dementia

Former England prop Steve Thompson has been diagnosed with dementia (Getty Images)
Former England prop Steve Thompson has been diagnosed with dementia (Getty Images)

A parliamentary inquiry into the link between sport and long-term brain injury has been launched. MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee will call witnesses to examine the issue, starting from next Tuesday.

It comes at a time when legal actions across football and both rugby codes are being considered or have been launched, and follows the 2019 FIELD study which found professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the population.

England 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton’s dementia diagnosis was confirmed last year, with four other members of the side - Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson suffering with dementia at the time of their deaths.

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight said: “This inquiry will consider scientific evidence to link sport with the incidence of long-term brain injury. We will look particularly at what role national governing bodies should be taking and their responsibilities to understand risks involved for players and what actions might be taken to mitigate them.

“We’re seeing a number of cases involving brain injury in sport likely to reach the doors of our law courts and we will also look at the implications for sport in the longer term of any successful legal claim.”

A group of former rugby union players has launched an action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union. The action, supported by Rylands Law, includes former England international Steve Thompson who is suffering from early onset dementia. He says he has no recollection of winning the World Cup with his country in 2003. Similar actions are being considered in football and rugby league.

Heading guidelines were altered last year in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland last year to encourage coaches not to practise heading at all in training in children up to primary school age. A working group is also looking at the introduction of guidelines for the professional game.

Concussion substitutes are being trialled in the Premier League and the FA Cup, in a bid to ensure players are not left on the pitch with suspected concussion to suffer damaging secondary impacts. The Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association are providing funding for further studies to examine the link between playing the game professionally and neurodegenerative disorders.

England football manager Gareth Southgate has agreed to be part of the ongoing HEADING study being conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. One of the lead academics on that study, Professor Neil Pearce, said last month that organisers were still looking for around 100 further participants. Any PFA members aged 50 or over would be eligible, he said.

The committee said it would hear from individual players and governing bodies in a second session, after the initial hearing next Tuesday.